Sons, top aides abandon Ba’asyir over ISIL, form new jihadist group

JAKARTA - Terrorist convict Abu Bakar Ba'asyir is set to lose his long-held position as the region's spiritual leader of a terrorist network after expelling his sons and top aides from his organisation, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), following their refusal to support the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS.

Disenchanted by their father's support for ISIL, Abdul "Iim" Rohim and Rosyid Ridho have formed a new jihadist group, called Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah (JAS), to rival JAT in recruiting followers to fight for the full implementation of sharia.

"Our father has said that anyone refusing to support ISIL should step aside. Sad to say, we're among those that see that our presence [in JAT] is no longer wanted," Iim told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

During a pledge of allegiance held on Monday at the haj dormitory in Bekasi, West Java, former JAT chairman Mochammad Achwan was elected as the new group's leader, while Iim was made chairman of the group's sharia council.

The group boasts of having 2,000 members in Jakarta, West Java, Central Java, East Java, West Nusa Tenggara and Bengkulu.

"For the sake of our future propagation, it is in our best interests to form a new organisation that has no hierarchical links to Ustadz Abu [Ba'asyir's nickname]," said Iim.

While indicating his grave disappointment to his father, Iim said he remained in contact with Ba'asyir but only for personal affairs.

Ba'asyir is serving a 15-year prison sentence for terror offences in the maximum-security Pasir Putih prison in Nusakambangan, an island off the coast of Cilacap, Central Java.

After a string of denials, Ba'asyir, along with several of his followers finally pledged the ba'iat [oath of allegiance] to ISIL's leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, in his prison in mid-July, according to Achwan.

Ba'asyir's expectation that performing the ba'iat would encourage his followers to do the same turned out to be short-lived, as only a few senior JAT officials and JAT's Banten branch followed suit.

A source within Ba'asyir's inner-circle said that Ba'asyir had initially expected his support for ISIL to attract more young followers into his camp and help curtail his diminishing power in the jihadist movement.

"More than 50 per cent of JAT members denounced the ba'iat and jumped ship," Achwan told the Post.

Enraged by the insubordination, Ba'asyir fired Achwan from the JAT chairmanship on July 17, replacing him with Afif Abdul Majid.

Afif, however, was later arrested by the National Police's Densus 88 counterterrorism unit on Aug. 9 for his alleged role in funding terrorist activity in Aceh in 2010.

"It's just horrendous. How can you throw support behind a group [ISIL] that is massacring fellow Muslims?" said Achwan, who was pardoned by then-president BJ Habibie in 1999 from a life sentence following the bombing of the Buddhist Borobudur temple in Magelang, Central Java, in 1985.

"Our sharia councils in Yemen and Syria have denounced ISIL because the group has deviated from the right course in forming a caliphate," he said.

Achwan also explained that it was about time to leave, as JAT had been subjected to intense scrutiny since voicing its support for ISIL, and that many of its members had been convicted of terrorism.

"Because of the liabilities, it is no longer feasible to continue our fight with the group," he said.

Achwan said he believed Ba'asyir was misled into supporting ISIL by fellow cleric Aman Abdurrahman, who is serving a nine-year prison term for funding terror-training camps in Aceh.

"It seems Ustadz Abu had intense communications with Ustadz Aman, who is a prominent proponent of ISIL," Achwan said.

But, aside from the differences in ideology, the refusal to support ISIL is also based on the fact that many JAT leaders have close ties to Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) - a prominent Salafi jihadist organisation in the Syrian conflict with links to al-Qaeda.

JN and ISIL are engaged in a rivalry to gain prominence in Syria, and many JN members have fallen victim to ISIL's ruthlessness.

One JAT member said that prior to ISIL's rise to prominence, JAT had sent many Indonesian nationals to fight with JN in the hope that once they returned, they would help train fellow jihadists here to assemble explosives or use firearms.

Achwan did not deny the allegation. "We received our direction from our respected clerics in JN, and we have supported the group in many ways," Achwan said.

Terrorism expert Noor Huda Ismail from the Institute for International Peace Building warned that the infighting may provide renewed encouragement for disgruntled members in the new splinter group to prove, in various ways, that they were better than their previous colleagues.

"All terror attacks in Indonesia have been carried out by splinter groups of known jihadist organisations, such as Jamaah Islamiyah [JI], which was born out of Darul Islam, and JAT from the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia [MMI]. Now we are seeing JAS," Huda said.

"These disgruntled members have resorted to violence to prove that they are more 'pure' in their jihad," he said.

Huda said that while the emergence of new "political entrepreneurs" in the jihadist movement should be anticipated, the most important thing was to identify the informal leaders behind the movement.

"Ba'asyir and Achwan are not strong leaders. Achwan is being 'controlled' by Iim, while Ba'asyir is controlled by a network operated by Aman Abdurrahman," he said.

Head of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), Ansyaad Mbai, told the Post that the infighting within JAT would not significantly alter the general strategy of the terrorist network.

"They may have different flags, but they are all the same. I sense that the infighting is just their trick to expand their support base," Ansyaad said.